Teenagers and Empathy: Why Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom Is Important

Ah, the smartphone. Great for many things — entertainment, hand-eye coordination, etc. — yet thoroughly detrimental to social behavior and physical interactions.

With all this modern technology, our teenagers can pick a fight and start conflict with a touch of the button. There’s no physical deterrent; so, why not?

Well, studies have shown that although great for safety, smartphones and the social media that inevitably comes with them, reduce empathy in their most avid users. These days, many teenagers and young adults find it difficult to relate to those standing in front of them. It’s saddening beyond belief.

But, with the right strategies, educators can set the groundwork for teenagers and empathy to go hand-in-hand. Before we begin, it’s worth defining the term so we’re all on the same page.

What Is Empathy?

In extremely simple terms, empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions and feelings of other people, regardless of physical descriptors, cultural backgrounds, or societal norms. It’s an essential life skill that paves the way to success in an individual’s personal and professional life.

Why Is Empathy in Teenagers Important?

Essentially, empathy dictates the effectiveness and functionality of all the other social skills that humans acquire and develop. It allows people to connect with their peers and family members on a deeper level by showing compassion, interacting appropriately, and understanding different points of view.

Without empathy, teenagers will grow into adults who are incapable of forming lasting bonds and treating people with kindness and equality.

So, How Can We Teach Empathy to Teenagers?

By harnessing SEL (i.e. social emotional learning), you can bring empathy-based strategies into your classroom to enhance your teenage students’ social cognitive processes.

However, before you can jump right in, it’s important to understand the following four factors.

Social Emotional Learning with Teenagers: Things to Consider

#1 Teenagers Empathize Differently to Adults

Studies have found that teenagers are far better at understanding the reasons why somebody feels frustrated (for example) than truly encompassing the emotions experienced by the person. This is largely due to the former using the perspective-taking, rational network of the brain rather than the emotional side.

Why aren’t teenagers great at using the emotional side of their brain to empathize? Well…

#2 Self-Regulation is Still Developing

Self-regulation is essential to be able to soothe the distress people often feel when truly empathizing with an individual. Since this part of the brain is still developing in adolescents, it can be far too overwhelming for teenagers to allow themselves to feel empathy with another.

#3 Emotions are Running on HIGH

With the above considerations in mind, it probably comes as no surprise that teenagers struggle to dial back their emotions at the best of times. Puberty produces all kinds of hormones that make mood swings and outbursts near-on impossible to control.

Naturally, we see self-regulation come into play as they age. So, empathy can manifest itself at a later date. However, it’s always a good idea to start building these skills as early as possible and for as long as possible.

Now, let’s get into the SEL strategies you can implement in your classroom to aid your students’ path to acquire empathy.

Tips, Tricks, and Strategies to Teaching SEL to Teenagers

#1 Focus on The CASEL 5

This interactive social emotional learning framework focuses on five key areas of competence and skills that can be taught, honed, and managed in the classroom, around the school, at home, and in the wider community.

Focusing on each of these areas helps to grow teenagers into well-rounded, healthy adults. The five zones are as follows:

Key Area Description Learning Ideas
Self-awareness The ability to understand personal values and emotions, and how they affect behavior
  • Identify cultural and personal assets
  • Identify emotions
  • Demonstrate honesty
  • Link feelings and thoughts
  • Develop a growth mindset and a sense of purpose
Self-management The ability to manage personal emotions and behaviors to adapt to situations and achieve dreams
  • Discuss stress-management solutions
  • Plan and organize life
  • Display self-discipline
  • Set class and individual goals
Social awareness The ability to understand the emotions and viewpoints of others, regardless of the context, personal background, and culture
  • Recognize peers’ strengths
  • Identify different social norms
  • Show concern for peers
  • Express gratitude
  • Understand how systems and organizations influence behavior
Relationship skills The ability to form and keep healthy relationships
  • Develop good communication skills
  • Learn how to constructively solve problems and conflict
  • Teamwork
  • Stand up for personal and peers’ rights
  • Resist peer pressure
  • Display leadership
Responsible decision making The ability to make caring choices about interactions, communications, and personal behavior when in all situations
  • Display curiosity
  • Recognizing the benefits of critical thinking skills in the real world
  • Learn how to make informed decisions based on the analysis of received information
  • Predict and consider the consequence of personal actions before performing them
  • Show open-minded behavior

#2 Try Reflective Journaling

Reflecting on past actions can be tricky for everyone. People do things they know they shouldn’t and act in negative ways all the time. But encouraging journaling can prompt teenagers into thinking about how they treat others. It almost forces them to engage with their past actions and consider how their peers may have felt.

To make it easier, give them journal prompts each week like:

  • How would you feel if you didn’t have a safe place to live?
  • How would you act if your friend was being cyberbullied?
  • How would you react if a student couldn’t afford to eat every day?

#3 Normalize Talking About Emotions

Ever asked a teenager how they are and they’ve responded with “fine”? We bet the answer is yes! This is extremely common in adolescence since they often feel misunderstood when they do try to open up.

To help them overcome this and normalize emotions in the classroom, be a good communication role model. Talking about your own feelings, emotions, and thoughts will help your class engage with theirs and be more willing to share.

Social Emotional Learning and Teenagers: The Bottom Line

SEL and all the strategies it encompasses is a fantastic way to teach empathy in teenage students. The next time you’re in class, incorporate these suggestions to fuel this essential life skill. They’ll thank you for it in the end.